Friday, August 31, 2018

Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell

Reviewed by Brenda G’Fellers

I like this book. Well-written, suspenseful, and generally believable, it offers unexpected twists and turns that can sidetrack the reader. I read it over one very busy weekend, stealing every possible minute to read, including while waiting in the dentist’s chair.

This tightly structured book begins at 8:16 p.m. Michael Frazier and his wife Angela are relaxing at home on a Tuesday evening, when the doorbell rings insistently. Michael answers to find Erica, the first wife he divorced ten years earlier, standing on the porch saying her daughter Felicity has been kidnapped, and she needs help. Erica has called the police in the neighboring town where she lives, but is impatient with their progress. She finally persuades Michael to help her by insisting that Felicity is his daughter. She shows him a photograph that she assures him resembles his late sister Robyn, who died at the age of 6. Erica acknowledges she has mentioned Robyn to manipulate him into helping her. But if there is any chance this is his child, he must help. Beyond that, a child is missing.

The entire plot unfolds in just over twelve hours, from the knock on the door until a resolution that is unsettling in some ways. The book is divided into three sections, Part One - Evening, Part Two – Night, and an Epilogue, dated 6 weeks later. The purist in me kept searching for Morning, a section that should have been there as the story ends at 9:14 a.m. Along the way, there are 2 car crashes, the unraveling of numerous lies and family secrets, all promoting the feeling that no one can be trusted. Revisiting the kidnapping of another family’s infant 10 years earlier plus the discovery of a suicidal child pornographer serve as plot distractions that feel like seeds for other novels.

I do hope David Bell writes those other novels. I am going to the stacks to search for his earlier 7 books. The works of truly good writers are not to be missed, after all.

Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell. New York: Berkley, 2018. 418 pages.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Nevermore: Dorothy Allison, Louisa May Alcott, Douglas Blackmon, Cat Warren

Reported by Jeanne

 Our first Nevermore member was very excited to share two novels by Dorothy Allison.  She felt Allison’s writing is wonderful, and that she does an incredible job of portraying the lives of people some would call “poor white trash”—impoverished people whose lives are marred by violence and substance abuse.

 Allison’s first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, is narrated by Ruth Ann, a young girl whose nickname is Bone.  Born out of wedlock, Bone’s mother Anny is anxious to get her birth certificate altered to disguise her status.  Anny is now married to Glen, who has a tempestuous relationship with Bone in this gritty, riveting novel set in South Carolina. 

Our reader was so impressed that she picked up Cavedweller by the same author.  A decade ago, Delia had fled an abusive relationship in Georgia for California, leaving behind her two young daughters.  Now Richard, the rock musician who helped her leave, has been killed in an accident so Delia heads back to Georgia with a bewildered third daughter in tow.  She’s desperate to forge some sort of relationship with the daughters she left behind, but she will have to face the judgment of the family.  Several characters narrate the story, each bringing a different viewpoint to events. Our reviewer felt that the novel's strength was in the depiction of a network of extended family, especially the strong women who survive in this hardscrabble environment. As with the first novel, Allison excels in her descriptions and rich characterization.  Our reader suggested that these books would be good to read along with Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

In need of something lighter, she then picked up Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase which she said is wonderful and a must read.   Written before the success of Little Women, this is one of Alcott’s “blood and thunder” novels which was rejected at the time for being “too sensational.”  The plot seems modern, in fact:  a young woman falls in love and marries a man who turns out not to be what he seemed, and tries to escape.  The ending is a bit weak, but it was still a most enjoyable book.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon elicited a long discussion as the next reader detailed how post- Civil War African Americans were still held in virtual slavery.  A person could be jailed for any number of minor offenses—vagrancy, failing to pay for a train ticket, etc.—and sentenced to work for the state, a corporation, or a farm.  The labor was hard, conditions were horrendous, and many died as a result. 

Our next reviewer had picked up Liberty’s Blueprint by Michael Meyerson but found that reading how Hamilton and Madison wrote the Federalist Papers just was not holding her attention.  Instead she turned to What the Dog Knows:  The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs by Cat Warren because it had a handsome German Shepard on the cover.  She said it was fascinating, blending research about how dogs and other animals have been trained to help humans.  Intertwined with the overview is the story of Warren’s own work with Solo, a German Shepard who is trained as a cadaver dog. It’s a wonderful book, our reader said, and recommended it to any reader.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Reviewed by Jeanne

Rick Dockery is an NFL quarterback. . . or was an NFL quarterback.  The third stringer has been bounced around from team to team, ending up with the Cleveland Browns.  Called onto the field near the end of the AFC championship game with the Browns up by 17, Dockery makes several brilliant plays—brilliant only if you are cheering for the opposing Broncos.  His performance is widely judged to be the worst in the history of the NFL.

Not surprisingly, Dockery finds himself once again unemployed and perhaps unemployable in the NFL, maybe even in North America.  There is one offer on the table, however:  a stint with the Parma Panthers.  Yes, in Parma, Italy. Apparently American football is enjoyed by a small but enthusiastic group of Italians. There are teams, largely composed of unpaid players, who play a shortened season and then have their own version of the Super Bowl.  Reluctantly, but feeling a need to not only get out of town but out of the country, Rick packs his bags.

This is one of Grisham’s non-mystery books and had been on my TBR (“to be read”) list for some time.  Thanks to BPL Bingo, it finally moved to the top of the pile.  I had heard good things about this book, and they were warranted.  It’s a light fun read, whether or not you know much about football.  I watch my share of college football and finally figured out how the downs work, but mainly I yell “Go-go-go-go-go!” when my team has the ball and “Get him-get him-get him” when the other team has the ball. The plays went over my head (like Rick’s passes) but that didn’t matter.  The story is really about an American being introduced to Italian culture.  It’s funny, warm, and charming.  There’s a bit of romance, a dab of history and architecture, and lots of food.  Oh, yeah, and football.

If you’re a football aficionado, you’ll probably get a lot out of the play calling, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the book as a whole.  There’s only one caveat:  you may find yourself craving Italian food—and not fast food Italian, either.

Now my only problem is to decide whether to use this for the “read a book about sports” square or “read a book featuring food.”

Friday, August 24, 2018

Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter

Reviewed by Christy

            When Belle Gunness’ farm house burned down in 1908 with her and her three children in it, the people of La Porte, Indiana were shocked and horrified. Their horror would only grow when numerous bodies were discovered buried around her farm. The media frenzy that followed (and the uncertainty of whether she faked her own death or not) helped catapult Gunness into the annals of famous serial killer history.

            The first half of Hell’s Princess recounts what it can of Gunness’ early life in Norway, as well as her journey to America and her eventual crimes. Schechter also describes the media firestorm that erupted after the discovery of the murders: thousands of folks traveling to La Porte to visit the farm (and steal a “souvenir”), stories covering those who claimed they had just barely escaped her clutches, and later a packed courthouse. 

           The second half gets into the trial of one of Gunness’ handymen who is accused of setting the fire. I have to admit that I skimmed a lot of this portion. Schechter certainly did his research which I appreciate but at times I felt he was throwing in things just to show all the research he did. There are many, many repeated instances of Gunness sightings that I felt could’ve been trimmed down, and I don’t know that so many pages and detail were needed for the trial.

            But overall, I thought this was a very interesting story. I knew a little about Belle Gunness but not a lot so I was excited to read this. I’d recommend it for true crime fans, just know going in that it’s not entirely just about Gunness.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Nevermore: Shipping News, Jeanette Winterson, Susie Steiner, Lawrence in Arabia, Nick Trout

Reported by Jeanne

The first book up was The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.  The main character, Quoyle, moves back to the ancestral home in Newfoundland after the death of his wife, taking with him his two daughters, an aunt, and his dog.  There he takes a job writing for the local weekly newspaper, a publication which specializes in stories about accidents, abuse, and news about shipping.  Our reader said the book had great imagery, though there were a lot of Canadian terms.  One favorite description was of a “paint slobbered chair.”

In Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, the narrator has fallen in love with a married woman Louise.  The book is brief—less than 200 pages—but our reviewer thought there was a lot to unpack in those pages.  It’s a bit heavy on the musings, but holds the reader’s interest as it presents a view of the mistakes one can make when you love a person and think you’re doing the right thing.

British thriller writer Susie Steiner made her mark with Missing, Presumed which introduced Det. Inspector Manon Bradshaw. In Persons Unknown, Bradshaw has moved from London back to Cambridgeshire in hopes of keeping her adopted son Fly from association with the wrong crowd and so that she can prepare for the birth of her child.  Fly finds village life difficult, since he is the only black child in school.  Then Bradshaw’s former brother in law is found murdered, and Fly becomes a suspect.  Our reader liked the strong blend of mystery and family life, and enjoyed the book.

The first non-fiction book this time was Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, and it came highly recommended.  T.E. Lawrence was an archaeologist excavating in Syria before the start of the first World War, and he became Britain’s agent in the area.  There were three other important foreigners who were also pursuing agendas for their countries: American William Yale, a Standard Oil employee; German Curt Prufer, another archaeologist turned spymaster; and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist who organized a Jewish spy network.  These four men had a profound influence on the Middle East, and our reviewer felt it did an excellent job of explaining the roots of some current situations. He said it was very informative and readable.

Finally, Tell Me Where It Hurts:  A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon by Nick Trout was described as  a book “that looks sweet but it isn’t.”  Our reader felt that Trout regarded himself as a Vet God and found him obnoxious. The book was all over the place, she said, and she was definitely not charmed.